Right now, kids in the UK are undergoing their GCSE exams. Every year around this time, I shudder a little inside and thank every deity going that I’m now a full grown ass adult who only has to do exams again if she chooses. I choose not to. Exams are a specific kind of hell that I choose never to repeat again.
As someone with no formal understanding of the education system, even I can see that it’s not designed for kids like the kid I was. If you succeed, that’s because you have the support of your parents behind you, and you’re the kind of learner who does well in exams and tests.
I was not that kid.
I loved learning, loved ploughing my way through books that were too ‘old’ for me, loved finding out new facts. When I first started school, that all worked out really well. I was lucky to have an amazing reception teacher, who cared about every kid in her class. She’d look for the talents those kids had and nurtured them. I loved drawing, and had a sense of perspective and style that wasn’t common in five year olds. I’d be given felt pens (pens! At school! The LUXURY) and be asked to draw pictures for display. I drew a picture that hung in the school assembly hall, and I’m still not sure that I’ve ever topped that accomplishment. I’m still chasing that sense of accomplishment to this day.
As I got older though, I found school fit me less and less. Teachers would get frustrated with me because I struggled to grasp mathematical concepts. I’d be left to get on with it, rather than helped with it. When I tried to be creative with school projects, I was scolded for not sticking to the rules. I soon learned that I wasn’t fitting in, wasn’t getting it.
This was especially apparent when I started taking exams. I took my first SATS exam as a small child and heard my mum boasting about the scores I got. That meant the next time I did an exam, I had to get the same results or I’d failed. As I got older and took more complex exams, it was clear that my brain wasn’t built for it. I could turn in amazing coursework, but I couldn’t recall information in an exam hall to save my life.
My GCSEs were OK, but my A Level results were less than ideal. Because I’d been told over and over I HAD to go to university, I saw this as a huge failing. I’d messed up, and now my future was ruined. In fact, everything was fine. I worked a couple of crappy jobs after school, then went to work in a children’s retreat centre for a year, and then went on to university when I discovered my grades and experience could get me in.
University didn’t directly help me find work (and graduating slap bang in the middle of the recession, I didn’t really have a hope in hell anyway), but it gave me the confidence I needed to see what I was really good. I eventually went self employed, and I could finally work the way I wanted. Alone, in my pyjamas, listening to video game soundtracks.
What am I getting at? The fact is, school isn’t set up to help every kid succeed. If you’re not hugely academic, you’re just set up to fail. If you’re like me and love learning, but you don’t do well with being hemmed in, then you’re not going to get what you need from school.
I was told that I was building up to secondary school, to sixth form, to university. Teachers tried to change my subjects around as ‘Universities want a well rounded student’. I’d never even shown an interest in going to university. It was decided for me, and when I didn’t go when I was 18 it was treated like a huge failure.
If you’re a school kid reading this now, let me put this up in huge flashing letters: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO GO TO UNIVERSITY AS SOON AS YOU LEAVE SCHOOL. You don’t have to go right away, or at all. Take a few years out and go when you’re older. (I went when I was 21 and it was one of the best decisions I’d ever made). Go get an apprenticeship. Get out of school as soon as possible if you hate it, and better yourself another way.
Education is important. It’s vital. But it’s not doing anyone any good if it’s not taking every child’s needs into account. If you’re doing your exams right now, please don’t worry about them. Work hard, obviously. But don’t overstretch yourself. Otherwise, you’ll be like me, crying and having a panic attack in the RE office. It’s not a good look.
School isn’t everything. If you fail your exams, you’ll live. If you don’t go to university, you haven’t ruined your future. Schools are still telling their students this, and it’s dangerous and utter bullshit. You know yourself best. Do what you need to do to get ahead.